I guess I’m a person of extremes; people have always said so at least. That personality quirk definitely manifests itself in how I travel, particularly in what I do and see. I love seeing the biggest, tallest and most unusual things. I love getting to the top of the nearest point, looking out below me and seeing how the landscape decides to unfold and reveal itself to me. I had never heard of Maui’s (mostly) dormant volcano until I arrived and saw pictures of the crater at the summit of this mighty mountain on the National Park Service’s web site. As soon as I saw those otherworldly images I was hooked and I knew that I had to find a way to get to the top of the volcano myself.
It almost didn’t happen though. Life sometimes gets in the way, things pop up and my first chance to visit the Haleakala summit evaporated like the mist encircling its peak. On my last day however, I decided on a whim that I would try again and steered my car in the direction of the mighty volcano.
House of the Sun, that’s what the native Hawaiians named this shield volcano that makes up more than 75% of the island of Maui. Haleakala soars to an impressive 10,023 feet and rests firmly in the middle of the equally massive 30,000-acre Haleakala National Park. Because of the remarkable clarity, dryness, and stillness of the air, and its elevation, the volcano features a large observational platform and attracts astrophysicists from around the world.
The day before I had gone on a bike ride down the volcano and I assumed that we started near the summit. Assuming that was true, I did the math and was relieved that I would have more than enough time to visit the summit. That’s why I wasn’t worried as I started driving up the mountain and into the National Park. You know what they say about assumptions though and as luck would have it, the actual summit of the volcano was more than forty-five minutes further up than I first thought. I alaso learned something about chemistry and physics while driving up the mountain. I learned that cars consume gas at a much higher rate as the elevation increases, and a short glance at my gas gauge caused me some concern. When I started my trek it was half full, more than enough to complete the round trip. But the added time and increased elevation caused that little needle to drop at a faster rate, and for my blood pressure to increase at similar intervals.
I was committed though; I was more than halfway to the top of Haleakala and nothing, not even an empty gas tank, was going to keep me from those amazing views.
The more I climbed though, the more anxious I got. I was sure I could make it to the top without problem, it was the hour drive back down which caused my stomach to churn ever so slightly. I tried though to concentrate on other things, namely the breathtaking views that surrounded me as I drove up the mountain.
10,000 feet is high, very high, and as I approached the summit I soon could see over the tops of the clouds, finding details impossible to see on the ground. The island of Maui lay below like a topographic map dotted with bright green and yellow squares. Finally, eventually, I made it to the top. I had ascended the volcano and parked my car to complete the final few steps on foot.
As I opened the car door two things struck me at once: the incredibly fierce wind and the biting cold. The cold I was prepared for, but the wind I was not. Small children sailed past as I struggled against the mighty gale, risking it all for photos of some of the most amazing panoramas I’ve ever seen.
Hawaii is beautiful and Maui is beautiful, but there’s just something totally unique and satisfying about seeing everything from an impossible height. The weather was perfect, the sky clear and I could easily see across to neighboring islands. The Big Island with its own impressive volcano, Mauna Kea, and the much smaller but no less spectacular neighbor, Lanai. Standing there at the top of the mountain I looked down and could see through the clouds; an amazing feat when accomplished without the aid of a jet.
I didn’t want to leave, I wanted to soak up the experience as much as I could. Finally though the cold and the wind got the better of me, as did the clock, and I reluctantly pointed the car down the steep mountain to make the long trek back to sea level.
Then I remembered the gas. Crap. Well there was nothing I could do, nothing at all. There aren’t gas stations on the tops of volcanoes, at least not on Maui, so I would just have to make the best of it, pray and hope a little. I did a lot of coasting down the road, only occasionally laying on the breaks and going so slow on the straightaways that everyone following surely was cursing my little brown car. But it worked, and before I knew it the air was getting warmer, life once again emerged and that familiar salt air hit my nostrils.
I rolled into the station on fumes and grabbed a sandwich as the car greedily drunk the much needed gas. I looked back up at the volcano, back down at the car and knew the stress and angst had all been worth it. Because really, how many times can you say that you stood on top of a volcano?